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Touring Colorado on a Donkey

Phil: Brian and I have been riding bikes together for the last 10 years. Our escapades have included week long stage races in banana republics with more stray dogs and chickens on the road than actual pavement, big mountain rides in the pacific northwest, and week long training camps among the towering redwood trees and wineries of Santa Rosa, CA. Ever since moving to the front range area, I was excited about the opportunity to show him some of the roads in my new found backyard. Loose plans formulated early this summer for him to come out and suffer through the thin air, which Brian has historically not done very well with, in order to do some touring. With the promise of the unknown and adventure, Nik was also very interested in joining us for what was sure to be a great three-day trip in the high country.

Nik: Little did I know what was in store for me, it was a day full of emotions, the one that occupied most of my attention was how I felt like I bonked when the ride just begun; definitely not the best way to start a three-day tour. 

Day 1 – Arvada, Co to Hot Sulphur Springs, CO
Phil: With a not so great forecast and the exposed ridge atop Rollins Pass our only option to get across the divide, an early start to the day was warranted. Nik, being the hardman that he is decided to roll from his home to meet up with us at my place near the base of Coal Creek Canyon.

Nik: Rollout from Denver was under the cover of darkness. I saw few early commuters, but otherwise the city was still slumbering. As I approached Golden, a deep yellow low hanging moon was off to my left. Soon the light broke and with it a red and orange sunset obscured the moon. At mile 24 I rolled up to Phil’s house and the tour truly began. We exchange pleasantries and I met Brian who is an old riding buddy of Phil’s who lives in the PNW.

Under cover of darkness I left Denver

Phil: Temperatures were perfect as we rolled across the early paved sections of the 6000-foot climb before us. Soon we made it on to Gap Road, a delectable piece of gravel road that crosses through Golden Gate State Park. A quick stop at the convenience store on Peak to Peak had us on our way into a big headwind up the valley past Rollinsville to Tolland. Already, the bright blue morning sky had given way to consolidating clouds. We paused briefly to discuss where to meet up if the weather turned awful on the climb and took the right hand turn onto the super chunk gravel road that is Rollins Pass. Luckily our mid week departure meant that there were essentially no motorized users of the road, a very rare occurrence. We slowly picked our way up the mountain. Personally, I grew more nervous about the weather with every passing mile. The long climb had meant we were already separated and time wasn’t on our side in attempting the hike a bike traverse well above tree line.

Nik: Unbeknownst to me, my companions were ex-pros who have raced all over U.S. and even Central America in Nicaragua (a bucket list place I would love to go to). They tapped out a steady but relentless rhythm on the climbs and I found myself struggling to stay attached. The route really was a real punch in the face; climbing with no real respite from 5280′ in Denver up the Continental Divide and 11,660′. With me yo-yo-ing my mind started to go to pretty low places. Why didn’t I think about how physically demanding this would be? I was not use to carrying so much gear or being constantly jarred by goat heads. Where was the smooth ribbon of tarmac and skinny tires? My coping mechanism was to consume food and drink like mad. I blew through my rations for day one and two. I didn’t care and figured I would find a grocery store later on and restock up (I did). Once I was truly detached I kept scanning the sky, Phil said we would regroup at the top unless the weather turn a turn for the worse, then we would descend to tree cover and regroup there. During the early going it seemed fine, but then the famous Colorado thunderheads began to appear and light drops of rain were falling.

I pressed on, the clouds keeping a watchful eye on me, egging me on. It was a race to get to the top.

I had moments of panic. What if I didn’t summit before the lightning. Would we get split? Would I foolishly try to summit in a storm? Would I turn back in the name of safety? If so, I had no cell service to tell Phil and Brian. Frustrated and nerves were not helping but I didn’t want to become a news headline of “cyclist above tree line struck by lightning”. I did the only thing I could do, pedal and pedal like mad I did.

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The sensations were not good

Phil: Brian and I reached the hike a bike and started the steep climb over the ridge. On the other side, we sat anxiously waiting for Nik to appear. Clouds gathering off to the side starting moving closer and angrier with every passing minute. To the right, we could see the rain coming down in sheets making its way slowly towards us. We both donned all of the winter ride clothing we had brought while mentally willing Nik to appear. No luck. As the winds picked up and our window for getting down safely seemed to be closing, I decided to head back to the ridgeline to see if I could spot nick, ditching my bike I hustled in my cleats across the alpine tundra. Moments later I spotted Nik making his way up the trail.

Nik: My legs barely trudged up the steep hike a bike section, Phil greeted me at the top. Once at the top the weather really turned for the worst. I beat the worst of the storm, but it was a small victory. Dark skies and rain harried us off the summit before truly enjoying and soaking up the achievement of summiting Rollins Pass.

Phil: We expeditiously made our way back to Brian who at this point was huddled in a small clump of bushes trying to hide from the wind. Moments later we were again below tree line at rifle sight notch, warm and relieved from the stress of being exposed on the ridge during a summer storm.

Nik: The descent was a littered with knobby rocks but eventually smoothed out and we really began to rip the switchbacks down to Fraser. Soon a split in the road appeared, the Garmin said left. Quickly the gradient leveled out and then instead of a descent, a 20%+ dirt wall loomed. No sign of Brian and Phil even though I could see straight for quite a ways. I hit the lower slopes, but soon resorted to pushing the Donkey. Being able to see so far and know they didn’t open a huge gap I wondered if thy missed the turn. With no cell service I wondered how this would pan out now that we were split. I heard exclamations from behind at the sheer steepness of the wall ahead.

Phil: We stopped for lunch and coffee in Fraser, before heading out on the next and final stretch of gravel connecting us to Hot Sulphur Springs.

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The legs had a nice patina of dirt after ascending Rollins Pass.

Nik: Lunch at mile 95 was a welcome sight. I wanted to eat anything in sight, but the most agonizing moment was waiting for a sandwich to be made. This guy only operated in slow motion. After an obscene amount of caloric intake amongst the three of us, we pressed on.

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A final climb and then a ripping descent to Hot Sulphur Springs

Phil: Pulling out of town, we all stared in disbelief towards Berthoud Pass as the peaks surrounding the area glistened in freshly falling white snow. I have seen a lot of crazy weather in a short time in Colorado, but this is the first snowfall I have ever seen in august. One of the things I love about going on these type of adventures is the high and lows of it all. One moment you are freezing on top of a ridge, hoping the lightning and storms hold off just long enough to get down, and the next, you are winding your way down a car-free buttery smooth gravel road with a tailwind through large stands of aspen trees. If you haven’t ridden County Road 50 between Fraser and Hot Sulphur springs, you should. It is 30 miles of bliss. The gravel is good, the views incredible, and the long fast descent at the end left us all with ridiculous grins on our tired faces to cap off an amazing first day of the tour.

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A loaded donkey is ready for rest.

Nik: Dinner was an adventure in itself. A pleasant and humorous old lady sat us down and proceeded to take our order- a smothered burrito, a pork chop and a cheeseburger. The restaurant, Mamma B’s, was a much-needed calm atmosphere with delicious food in a town where food options were slim pickins’.

When Mamma B saw Brian was no longer eating she said, “What you’re no longer hungry?”

He replied, “I am, another pork chop please.”

Incredulous Mamma B was taken aback, but sure enough Brian wolfed down a second chop.


Day 2 – Hot Sulphur Springs To Breckenridge

Phil: We all woke up to tired legs, and personally I was very happy that our next section of road was relatively flat and supposed to be very good gravel.

Nik: Fog shrouded the top of the surrounding peaks. We rolled out of the motel and down the road to small café that had good food, but terrible coffee. We overheard a conversation between a patron and a server that Starbucks is too caffeinating and the solution was Folgers, “it’s simple and a tub can last a month”. This carried on for a good 15 minutes. My inner single origin coffee snob cringed and soon lost taste for the mug I had in hand. Good food, bad coffee. So it goes. Our breakfast stop allowed it to warm up some, but we were still geared up in leg warmers and jackets to ease the bite of the cold.

Phil: We left the quaint café and into the morning’s cool air and headed towards County Road 3. The rumors of the surface were true and we made quick work of the unpaved section leading up to Ute Pass.

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A short and brisk section of pavement before we hit the dirt.

Nik: Warming up quickly we stopped at the top and peeled off layers. A rancher slowed and gave us a once over as he pulled into his field but luckily that was all. We make a hasty exit and pressed on. Soon in the distance we saw a fellow bike packer laden down with way more gear and a mountain bike setup. We exchanged good mornings and pressed on. The dirt ribbon wound down and around another ridge and soon two more bike packers were the distance. We marveled at how this must be a popular route. Sure enough after climbing up to a mill we saw another bicyclist. The road undulated with a few false summits but finally we were at the top of Ute Pass.

Phil: The climb lead us to a fast descent down the pass with expansive views of the Gore Range for our eyes to feast on. Another 20 miles of pavement seemed to roll by in an instant before we got to the I-70 corridor near Silverthorne to stop for lunch.

The Gore Range

Nik: Lunch at mile 42 was saner than yesterday, but I agonized at how long it felt for a burrito to be made at Chipotle. I mean a place designed for speed and here I am nitpicking at how slow it felt. Only in massive hunger can food preparation feel like an eternity.

Phil: I pulled out my phone at Starbucks to pay for a coffee and noticed an urgent text message from one of the partners that I work for. I texted back, explaining the lack of cell service, but that I had a small window to chat before we headed back on the road. While I am not sure there is ever a good time to find out bad news, I do believe that somehow I was meant to find out this news at exactly this moment in the midst of an adventure with good friends. With a tired mind, a relaxed spirit, and the perspective that only the mountains can provide for me, I tried to comprehend the fact that the company I had worked for during the last 6 years of my life was dismantling. I would be returning home jobless. The good thing about touring, is there is really only one thing you have to worry about each day, and that is pedaling. So after finishing our lunches and coffees, I tried to focus on the simplicity of my current situation rather than the complexity that lay at home for me.

Nik: With lunch down we saw clouds rolling in. I topped up a slow front leak with some air and hoped it would hold to Breck where I could add more sealant.

Phil: Our hotel, and more importantly the hot tub I was excited to get in were exactly 14 miles of highway from our lunch stop. However, this tour certainly wasn’t about getting from Point A to Point B and our route was a bit more ambitious than the paved highway.

Nik: Winding up the switchback of the bike paths to lake Dillon we joked about short cutting it to Breck but we knew that really wasn’t an option. We had whetted our appetite for dirt and the last 20 miles would deliver.


Phil: We wound our way back behind Keystone Ski Area to a small stream crossing that lead us to a large set of switchbacks on double track that connected to the Colorado Trail.

Nik: It was an odd climb that required short bursts of torque for the steep sections and then more of an even keeled power output when it leveled out. I knew this was where a donkey could thrive, for a short while my legs felt some energy and I drilled the climb. I knew this was foolhardy and that Brian and Phil would reel me in and I would pay for it later (and boy did I) but I couldn’t help myself. The climb finally ended or rather the double tracked merged with the Colorado Trail. We continued to climb now on carved singletrack. Picking lines and weaving through tree roots and goad heads was a change of pace and required constant attention. Soon the trail leveled and then pointed down.

Phil about to drop the hammer

Phil: We descended the rooted out single track with big grins as our Trail Donkeys handled the technical trail with ease.

Nik: We rode through varying terrain of pine forests, I marveled at it, but I was having to much fun flying albeit maybe a bit recklessly down the descent. Then it got technical and picking lines were critical. I was hollering with laughter as we rolled down. It was awesome; we had some hairy moments with nearly over cooked turns but we all kept it upright.

Phil: A few miles later we climbed up the final gravel road before descending into Breckenridge. Unfortunately for us, it was the steepest climb of the trip and forced us to walk several sections of the loose and rocky mining road.

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Orienteering after getting off the Colorado Trail

Nik: Dune buggies heading down heckled us as the road pitched up. It sucked, loose gravel and 20%+ gradients made it tiring to ride so it became a mix of bike, hike bike hike. This climb did not end and I was fading fast. W00ts turned to mutters.

Phil: Just as we crested the top, the thunderstorms we had been avoiding all day caught up to us

Nik: Loud booms cracked overhead as we pushed the Donkeys the final few hundred meters to the top. We hastily donned rain jackets and gloves. I had a half bite of a Cliff Bar and began the descent. If the climb sucked, so did the descent softball sized rocks covered the whole road, there was no line. The tactic was point the bike downhill and roll over whatever happens to be there. Finally it gave way to a “normal” dirt road but with the now just rain coating the dirt we were soon mud spattered and wet.

Phil: We pulled into the ski resort hotel, with muddy bikes, faces and smiles. I feel bad for whoever had to clean our room.

Nik: As soon as we got to lodging I quickly felt out of place. The entire valet and hotel staff had custom Helly Hanson jackets and couples were dressed quite regally in the lobby. Here we were, a trio a mud dripping cyclists coming in from the rain into the hosh posh mountain resort society. A hot shower, some tacos, sealant for the slow leak, a bike wash and a soak in a hot tub for humans and I was feeling as normal as I could be after slogging myself over some truly epic terrain.


Day 3 – Breckenridge to HOME!
Phil: The last day! Today was a big day, after a few different route iterations, the final plan included 5 major climbs: Boreas Pass, Kenosha Pass, Guanella Pass, Virginia Canyon Road, Dory Hill Road.

Nik: A hobbit would be proud. Brian made use of our kitchenette and we had two breakfasts. Soon were we stuffed from hashed potatoes, omelets, bowls of oatmeal and coffee we all geared up and wheeled out into a chilly foggy morning in Breck.

Phil: The climb up Boreas Pass started essentially out the door from the hotel, which was welcomed as a way of fighting off the cold early morning air. Boreas is another one of those amazing pieces of gravel road that just makes reminds you of why you love riding bikes. Smooth, not steep, incredible views, and very little traffic.

Nik: We wound through ski neighborhoods now dormant, but waiting for snow to fly. Soon we left the neighborhoods behind and the road turned to smooth hard packed dirt that was slightly tacky from the morning dew. The grades of Boreas Pass were comparatively pleasant after yesterday’s slog, but Phil and Brian’s pace was again ever so slightly more than I could manage and I found myself at my own tempo.

Phil: The top almost came too soon as a good night sleep and great scenery made the 9-mile climb fly by.

That’s the summit?

Nik: I tried to ignore how slow I seemed to be moving and how much elevation was left. I was doing the anti-Froome, looking anywhere but my stem and subsequently my metronome of a Garmin. The tactic worked because when I reached the saddle of the Pass I was surprised to see Phil and Brian. Surely we would climb above the saddle and to a higher peak? Nope, it truly was the top. We layered up for the descent since the sun still had not burst through the clouds to give warmth to the world. The descent was fast and I let the bike glide over the dirt. The views of the South Platte Valley on our left was rewarding, a valley enshrouded in fog.

Phil: We descended down to 285 which unfortunately server as our connector for the next 17 miles.

Nik: Coffee and fresh baked pastries waited at the general store in Jefferson off of 285, three breakfasts all before 10am. Despite the insanity of calorie stuffing, all the calories would not save me from the inevitable climb ahead…

Phil: A tail wind, and light traffic made it not so bad and before we knew it, the left turn in Grant appeared leading us to the massive 13 mile Guanella Pass. I had ridden Guanella once previously, and was excited to be back for a second helping. However this time, I knew not to trust the incorrect signage and rely on the fact that this climb is LONG!

Nik: Guanella pass loomed, our third climb of the day and the second time going above 11,000’. Phil’s last words before he passed were, “When you see a sign that says four miles to go, don’t believe it.” It had a lasting impact.

I pressed on sure enough long after I was ready for the climb to be over, a small-dilapidated wooden sign said 4 miles to summit. I made note of the mileage and rode on. The climb snaked around itself. This time all I could do was impersonate Froome and watch my elevation ever so slowly tick its way up to 11,600’.

Phil: With a better understanding of what lay ahead, the climb was much more enjoyable than the last time when I kept incorrectly hoping for it to end just around the next corner. At the top, we got to introduce Brian to Colorado’s weekend 14’er culture with an incredibly crowded trailhead as the entire city of Denver made their way down from Bierstadt.

Nik: At the summit I felt wrecked, steamrolled, whatever. It hurt. We were less than halfway through the days mileage.

A painful slog up Guanella for this view.
A painful slog up Guanella for this view.

Phil: A lunch stop, and a coffee stop for good measure waited us after a quick descent.

Nik: Probably to my benefit we had lunch in Georgetown then rolled another 5-7 miles and stopped for a coffee just outside of Idaho Springs. Once more I was beyond topped up calorically and two only climbs remained.

Phil: Once in Idaho Springs we found ourselves at the base of what I still think is one of my favorite roads in the area, Virginia Canyon. The climb itself isn’t that hard, about 5 miles of well graded gravel, and the views down to the valley are wonderful.

A well fed donkey is a happy donkey

Nik: Finding some sort of second wind I clung to Phil and Brian’s wheel setting a PR up Virginia Canyon. Second wind?

Phil: We descended into Blackhawk, and followed the detour meant to shun cyclists from the sin city of the high country and gritted our teeth up the final main obstacle of the day. Dory Hill is short, but pretty steep, even more so at the end of a three day tour.

Nik: Nope. Phil and Brian glided away. Once more I was tapped and I paperboyed my way up Dory Hill, its 13%+ gradients never easing until hitting the Peak to Peak Highway.

Phil: We made it back up to Peak to Peak, grabbed an ice cream sandwich and headed down Gap Road, where it all started a few days prior. A blind corner almost led us head first into a huge moose. An encounter with the wildlife seemed a fitting end to our expedition in the mountains. Coming out of Coal Creek Canyon you could see Denver glistening in the flatlands below us. A sense of wonderful accomplishment combined with exhaustion pushed us downhill back to my house were my wife had dinner waiting.

Nik: After all the effort, we easily rolled to Phil’s house where a shower and hot dinner waited. I would not pedal to Denver. Erin joined for dinner and over the dwindling light of another day, the three of us already began recounting our adventure to the fine company around the dinner table. An adventure was had and the three of us knew we did something special, something that we would not soon forget.

Signing off,




This ride really made me question why I ride a bike, what is fitness and whether I even have it since I spent much of the ride off the back. Back to the lab to test these hypotheses… Another adventure beckons.

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